It was a pleasure to have interviewed 92-year-old sex therapist Dr. Ruth for Publishers Weekly. But that interview was for a general audience, so The Detroit Jewish News kindly ran another edit of our interview, this one with more Jewish content.
Now, though, for the very first time, here’s our complete interview. Parents, you may want to shield your children’s eyes … or prepare to have “the talk” with them after reading this. We talked about sex, the Bible, her work as a sniper for the Israeli army, and the time I first met her years ago, when I was editor of a Jewish wire service in New York. Enjoy.
Howard: Hello, Dr. Ruth! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. The first question I always ask these days, no matter who I’m talking to, is how are you? Are you coping OK with lockdown?
Dr. Ruth: I belong to an endangered species because I’m 92. I’m very fine and I’m up in the country with my daughter and son-in-law and, right now, four grandchildren I can count. And I’m very careful. When I’m in New York, I stay home, but I’m talking a lot on the phone. And I tell you that it will be over and not to lose hope. And I’m waiting for Gov. Cuomo to say, “Dr Ruth, now you can go out.”
Howard: I first met you sometime in 1999 or 2000, when I was managing editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. We talked for only a moment, but the one thing that stuck with me was that when you spoke to me, you gave me your undivided attention. Is that part of the secret of being a good therapist? Being a good listener?
Dr. Ruth: Howard, that’s a very interesting question. I have never been asked that question. The answer is “yes.” Undivided attention. I’m sitting alone. I just had coffee. And I am not doing anything but listening to you and talking to you. I think you are absolutely right. This is one of my characteristics which comes from being a therapist. Because in my office in those days, no phone calls when I talked to people. Undivided attention is correct.
Howard: I watched the “Ask Doctor Ruth” documentary last year and learned so many things about you that I did not know. I learned that you were a Holocaust orphan and also a bad-ass sniper for the Israeli army. Do you think you, or your generation, which lived through so many horrible things early in life, made you appreciate life, and sex, a little more?
Dr. Ruth: Definitely, in my case, the appreciation of life is no question. But I’ll tell you also, since I’m one of the few children that did survive—one-and-a-half million Jewish children were killed—I knew I had an obligation to make something out of my life. But, Howard, I did not know that it would be talking about sex. That, I did not know. However, my being able to talk so openly about orgasms and erections, all of the things about sex, is because I’m very Jewish. And in the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin. Sex has always been an obligation from a husband to a wife.
I do believe that the book, Heavenly Sex, and I’m jumping for joy that it is going to be a classic, coming out now, and will never be out of print, by NYU Press. However, I could not have done the book without Mark from The Jewish Week because I needed somebody who can find the sources in the Jewish tradition of those things that I’m talking about.
Howard: So, let’s talk a little more about sex and the Bible. There’s a lot of it going on, and not all of it between husband and wife. Why do you think the Bible, which is supposed to contain many lessons for how to live our lives, is so filled with sex parts?
Dr. Ruth: Because sex is an important part. You and I would not be in this world without sex. However, you are absolutely right. For example, the Book of Ruth talks about how she kind of seduced Boaz. They are such interesting stories because what they wanted to make sure is that there are next generations. On Friday night, the husband says “A Woman of Valor” In that prayer, towards the end, is one sentence that I believe is the most sexually arousing in the world. The husband says to the wife, “There are many wonderful women out there who do wonderful things, but you are the very best.” And in my experience as a sex therapist, there is nothing better for a woman to hear than that. And, it’s interesting. The sages wanted people to have sex Friday night. They also wanted them to have babies. And really, that book is the best sex manual of all time.
But I want to tell you something with a hypothesis that I cannot prove. It says, in the Jewish tradition, it says that if a husband brings his wife to sexual satisfaction before he ejaculates, she will bear a son. Now, here is my hypothesis, which I cannot prove: I would like to see a scientifically validated study. It could be that if there is more wetness in the vagina, maybe the male spermatozoa has an easier time to get to the ovum. I don’t have any proof of that, but since we know that Jews wanted to have sons. It also says a man can do with his wife what he pleases, even from behind—from behind is not anal intercourse, from behind means inserting the penis into the vagina from behind, which is most interesting for a sex therapist because the clitoris is exposed and be stimulated to have the woman have an orgasm. So, many things that I’m describing in the book are very, very apropos even for today.
Howard: In other religions, sex is associated with guilt, but Judaism, as far as I know, embraces it. Is it cultural? Genetic? Or just the difference between emphases between the Old and New Testaments?
Dr. Ruth: A very important point. Never, in the Jewish tradition, is there anything prohibiting sex in any position. They wanted people to have sex. They wanted people to be married, but never is it associated with guilt. On the contrary, it is an obligation on a husband to satisfy his wife, which is fascinating if you look at other religions that have many more problems. I don’t go into these problems at all. I just say many other religions have that issue of guilt. Never in the Jewish tradition. It was always considered a mitzvah, an obligation of a husband to satisfy the wife.
Howard: How intertwined are sex and spirituality? Should sex be a religious or spiritual experience?
Dr. Ruth: That’s a very good question. I’m a sex therapist and I’m saying sex should be sex. Period. If you want to make it spiritual, make it spiritual. If you want to just make it bodily, make it bodily. The important thing is to be sexually literate, to know when there is a problem to go for help and to make sure to keep sex alive even in older age. Now, I’m not saying that everybody can have a baby, like Sarah, at the age of 90. Not likely. The Bible teaches us about relationships and about companionship.
Howard: So, I’m about to turn 55. You just turned 92. The population is aging. Are you concerned about the sex life of an elderly population?
Dr. Ruth: It’s not just the act of intercourse. For me, sex is also as important as a relationship, of caressing, of hugging—not only that, of showing how happy you are that your partner is in your life.
Howard: Who would you vote for as the sexiest man or woman in the Bible?
Dr. Ruth: I don’t know. But if you ask me if there is a man who is not alive anymore, who I would have liked to have spent more time with when I was in Israel, it’s certainly Ben Gurion. I don’t want to say that I would have liked to sleep with him. It’s not appropriate. First of all, he was short; second, he had that wonderful smile. When he looked at Golda Meier. I had never met him, but in 1948, when Israel was declared a state, I was in Jerusalem, dancing the whole night, when he declared the State of Israel on the radio. So, if you ask me anybody in history that I would have liked to know better, which is also interesting, Howard, the verb “to know” in Hebrew is “ladá’at” “ladá’at” is “to know.” Interesting because that’s what I’m talking about from morning to night. It’s not just a sex act.
Howard: Most of the world spent the last six months under lockdown, often with their spouses or partners, but also under a lot of stress. Do you think the silver lining in all this is that partners got to know each better in the “Biblical sense?” Or do you think the stress of the pandemic put a stop to sexual contact?
Dr. Ruth: Good relationships will survive and bad relationships will not survive. When there was a one-night blackout in New York some years ago, I could say to people, “I know in nine months there will be more babies.” Not now. Right now, this is nothing to joke about. So, I’ll only say what I’m doing is listening to the health professionals. Whoever is in a relationship, it is fortunate not to be lonely. And it says in the Jewish tradition, clearly, God did not want people to be alone.
Howard: When you began as a sex therapist, you were considered by some to be scandalous, especially among the religious. I don’t think you are anymore. Do we have better attitudes about sex in the 21st century?
Dr. Ruth: I don’t think that anybody who really listened to me more than just a sound bite knew that I never was scandalous. I talked very openly about orgasm, about erection, about lubrication, about all those things. I talked very openly about what we don’t know. I talked openly that there’s no G-spot, until I get scientifically validated data. So, I never considered myself scandalous. I considered myself very open. And, because of my accent and because of my ten years on radio and many, many television programs, it’s true that when people opened the radio or television programs, they knew it was me. In the film, it shows somebody wanting to do a citizens’ arrest because I talked about sex on a college campus. I did not like that because I came out of Nazi Germany and I certainly didn’t like a citizens’ arrest. However, there was
Howard: What is the most-important message the Bible, or Judaism, teaches us about sex and relationships?
Dr. Ruth: The most important sentence in there, in my opinion, is that God did not want man to be alone. Period. I think this is true even today, when so many people, young people and older people, have trouble committing to a relationship because they always think there’s something better out there. So, I think that is one lesson to be learned. The Bible, and certainly the Jewish tradition, wanted people to be in a relationship.